Jun 23 2004

The Gospels Excluded by Athanasius

Published by under Talks


The many gospels of Jesus ruthlessly excluded from the NT canon and their developing effect upon the belief of Christians today.
(Talk in June, 2004 to Dunedin Sea of Faith group by Ian Fleming)


Till quite recently many believed that all we knew about Jesus was contained in four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, the synoptics, along with the differently directed gospel of John, and from those gospels developed the one holy catholic apostolic church as recounted in the rest of the New Testament and history.

David van Biema put it well in a useful image in Time Magazine of 22 December last year. He said: (Christianity’s) historical silhouette was traditionally thought to resemble that of (an oak) tree: bushy on top with denominational profusion, but plumb line straight in its bottom half, theologically unified down through the hardy “primitive church” and on, … through apostolic roots, to Christ. (Any) early deviations, or heresies, … (were seen to be) minor, perverse curiosities of limited interest.

As an example of this prevailing attitude, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church published in 1957, in an article on Gospel, puts it this way: “The so-called Apocryphal Gospels, which mostly arose in heretical circles, are wholly inferior works of later date and virtually devoid of historical value. They never seriously challenged the authority of the canonical Gospels.”

Montague James in the preface to his book “The Apocryphal New Testament”, a 1924 collection of all the known books at the time, says of them: “There is no question of anyone’s having excluded them from the New Testament: they have done that for themselves.”

In fact, the struggle to eliminate the Gnostics and their ancient literature, has been highly successful, so much so that the main evidence of much of the Gnostic literature, for centuries, has been only disparaging remarks in the writings of orthodox authors referring to heretics.

Well then, only four gospels?

To the contrary, the gospels numbered not four, but – what? 80? as Dan Brown suggests in his novel “The Da Vinci Code”. Perhaps. Certainly quite a few – 40 at least. Gospels all over the place, each emerging from a particular group of Christians with a particular take on the remembered impact of Jesus on their lives. Gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, and so on – as well as those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But the range of choices enjoyed by the early Christians has been denied to us. This range of heretical writings in other words, for heresies was what they all were, if we take the original sense of that word. Because the word heresy comes from the Greek word haieresis, choice. We have been denied that range of choice essentially by one Athanasius who ordered all but the orthodox heresies to be destroyed.

Athanasius was a very able forceful young man, born about 300 in the CE, later to become Bishop of Alexandria. He has been depicted by Latourette in his History of Christianity as one of the outstanding figures in Christianity’s entire history. Certainly with our new appreciation of the many other gospels, he was definitely the most pivotal.

At first Athanasius had gone along with others in viewing the wide variety of gospels as a virtue, this haeresis, this variety of choice, – he had agreed that this wide range of takes on Jesus’ life was something to be celebrated. But when unity of belief became the primary concern for him and others, he vigourously set out to create just one set of beliefs for the one church, and the only gospels he allowed as orthodox in his canon of scripture were the three synoptics and, in its own significant take, John.

Athanasius intended his “canon of truth” to safeguard the “orthodox” interpretation of scripture and to exclude the other heresies. This canon of truth would come eventually to be enshrined in the Nicene Creed. And alas, that word heresy, originally celebrated as a virtue of choice came now to be used in only a vituperative sense, – defiling heresies, Athanasius called them, and worse.


We now step aside to see how today’s change of perspective on the early church has come about. And we have to thank the science of archaeology and Biblical and historical scholars for it.

Over only the last century or so, a few of these other so-called “heretical” artefacts have been coming to light. And only very recently have scholars begun realising that early Christianity may have been far more diverse than was previously acknowledged. Returning to van Biema’s earlier metaphor, gradually, more liberal historians have come to view early Christianity not as an oak with its single trunk going straight back to Jesus, but as a mangrove, a welter of trunks with names like Gnosticism, Ebionism and Marcionism, each offering a different vision of Christ and Christians. The accepted “orthodox” stem, (scholars began now to conclude,) (must have) gradually strangled or absorbed the others. (And the scarcity of the lost texts), (they) decided, must not so much have reflected unpopularity in their day as had been hitherto thought. Rather, their scarcity reflected a later campaign by the church, under the (vigourous) leadership of Athanasius, to eliminate forever what the orthodox church deemed misguided and misleading teaching.

This dawning realisation received a significant boost in 1945 with the Nag Hammadi discovery.

Near (the Egyptian town of) Nag Hammadi was found a remarkable trove of non-canonical Gospels, epistles and apocalypses. These writings enabled several traditions, mute for one and a half millennia, to speak for themselves.

In December 1945 an Arab peasant made an astonishing archaeological discovery in Upper Egypt. Accounts of the developments after the discovery vary slightly in small details but agree in the general facts. Early rumours obscured the circumstances of this find — perhaps because the discovery was accidental, and its sale on the black market illegal. For years after, even the identity of the discoverer remained unknown.

One persistant rumour however held that the find had been made near the town of Nag Hammádi at the Jabal al-Tárif mountain. Thirty years later the discoverer himself, Muhammad ‘Alí al-Sammán; agreed to give his account of what happened. His story was written down by scientists who were all too aware of the importance in finding out the circumstances of how the manuscripts came to see the light.

Muhammad Ali and his brothers had saddled their camels and gone out to the Jabal to dig at the foot of a cliff for sabakh, a soft soil they used to fertilize their crops. Digging around a massive boulder, they hit a red earthenware jar, almost a metre high. Muhammad ‘Alí said he hesitated to break the jar, considering that a jinn, or spirit, might live inside. But hoping that it might also contain gold, he raised his mattock, smashed the jar, and discovered inside thirteen papyrus codices, bound in leather.

Returning to his home in al-Qasr, but unaware of his priceless find, Muhammad ‘All dumped the books and loose papyrus leaves on the straw piled on the ground next to the oven the family used for baking bread. Muhammad’s mother, ‘Umm- Ahmad, admits that she burned some of the loose papyrus under the oven along with the straw she used to kindle the fire.

A few weeks later, as Muhammad ‘Alí tells it, he and his brothers avenged their father’s death in a blood feud by murdering Ahmed Isma’il who happened to be passing through the region. Their mother had warned her sons to keep their mattocks sharp: when they learned that their father’s enemy was nearby, the brothers seized the opportunity, “hacked off his limbs . . . ripped out his heart, and devoured it among them, as the ultimate act of blood revenge.” Fearing that the police investigating the murder would search his house and discover the codices, Muhammad ‘Alí asked the priest, al-Qummus Basiliyus Abd al-Masih, to keep them for him.

During the time that Muhammad ‘Alí and his brothers were being interrogated for murder, Al-Qummus Basiliyus, struck by the originality of the collection sent a sample to a local Egyptian historian Raghib who suspected their value and sent it to a friend in Cairo to find out its worth. Quickly sold on the black market through antiquities dealers in Cairo, the manuscripts soon attracted the attention of officials of the Egyptian government. Through circumstances of high drama, as we shall see, they bought one and confiscated ten and a half of the thirteen leatherbound books, and deposited them in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Thus the codices were prevented from being dispersed and taken out the country. But it was another few years before scientists were made aware of their existence.

A large part of the thirteenth codex, containing five extraordinary texts, had also been sold on the black market and was bought by an antique dealer, Albert Eid. He refused to hand over the Codex to the local authorities and smuggled it out of the country. Unable to sell it in the United States, he placed it in a safe in Belgium. After his death, his wife took over with the illegal sale of the book.

Word of this codex reached Professor Gilles Quispel, distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Excited by the discovery, Quispel urged the Jung Foundation in Zurich to buy the codex. But discovering, when he succeeded in the purchase, that some pages were missing, he flew to Egypt in the spring of 1955 to try to find them in the Coptic Museum. Arriving in Cairo, he went at once to the Museum, borrowed photographs of some of the texts, and hurried back to his hotel to decipher them. Tracing out the first line, Quispel was startled, then incredulous, to read: “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, p.3 of 12 and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” Quispel knew that his colleague H.C. Puech, using notes from the French Egyptologist, Jean Doresse who had studied the papers at the Coptic Museum, had identified the opening lines with fragments of a Greek Gospel of Thomas discovered in the 1890s.

A second part of the Nag Hammadi library ended up in the hands of an outlaw, Bahij Ali in Muhammid Ali’s village. He sold it to Phocion Tano, an antique dealer in Cairo. When the Egyptian government tried to buy it back, the dealer advised that he had already sold it on to an Italian collector, Miss Dattari, living in the Egyptian capital. When the manuscripts were declared part of the country’s heritage in 1952 by the Ministry of Public Education, Dattari’s collection became the property of the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Well, that’s the story of how the library came to public knowledge. Furthermore, as one source speculates, no-one can be sure whether the library found in 1945 is complete or whether there might be an additional codex or codices somewhere out there.

But the discovery of the whole text of Thomas raised new questions: Did Jesus have a twin brother, as this text implied? Could the text be an authentic record of Jesus’ sayings? According to its title, it contained the Gospel According to Thomas; yet, unlike the gospels of the New Testament, this text identified itself as a secret gospel. Quispel also discovered that it contained many sayings known from the New Testament; but these sayings, placed in unfamiliar contexts, suggested other dimensions of meaning. Other passages, Quispel found, differed entirely from any known Christian tradition:- the “living Jesus,” for example, speaks in sayings as cryptic and compelling as Zen koans, (or teaching devices): Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

What Quispel held in his hand, the Gospel of Thomas, was only one of the fifty-two texts discovered at Nag Hammadi. Bound into the same volume with it is the Gospel of Philip, which attributes to Jesus acts and sayings quite different from those in the New Testament. For instance: . . . the companion of the [Saviour is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] . . . They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Saviour answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you as (I love) her?” Other sayings in this collection criticise common Christian beliefs, such as the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection as naïve misunderstandings. Bound together with these gospels is the Apocryphon (literally, “secret book”) of John, which opens with an offer to reveal “the mysteries [and the] things hidden in silence” which Jesus taught to his disciple John.

Muhammad ‘Alí admitted that some of the texts were lost–burned up or thrown away. But what remains is still astonishing: some fifty-two texts from the early centuries of the Christian era– p.4 of 12 including a collection of early Christian gospels, previously unknown. Besides the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip, the find included the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel to the Egyptians, which identifies itself as “the [sacred book] of the Great Invisible [Spirit].” Another group of texts consists of writings attributed to Jesus’ followers, such as the Secret Book of James, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter. What Muhammad ‘Alí discovered at Nag Hammadi, it soon became clear, were Coptic translations, made about 1,600 years ago, of manuscripts that were still more ancient again. The originals themselves had been written in Greek, the language of the New Testament. Part of one of them had been discovered by archaeologists about fifty years earlier, when they found a few fragments of the original Greek version of the Gospel of Thomas, (I referred to this before.)

About the dating of the manuscripts themselves there is little debate. Examination of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings, and of the Coptic script, place them in the years 350-400 in the CE. But scholars sharply disagree about the dating of the original texts. Some of them can hardly be later than c. 120-150, since Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, writing c. 180, declared that heretics “boast that they possess more gospels than there really are,” and complained that in his time such writings already had won wide circulation–from Gaul through Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor. Quispel and his collaborators, who first published the Gospel of Thomas, suggested the date of c. 140 for the original. Some reasoned that since these gospels were heretical, they must have been written later than the gospels of the New Testament, which are dated c. 60-l l0. But Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University has suggested that the collection of sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, although compiled c. 140, may include some traditions even older than the gospels of the New Testament, “possibly as early as the second half of the first century” (50- 100)–as early as, or earlier, that is, than Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

Scholars investigating the Nag Hammadi find discovered that some of the texts tell the origin of the human race in terms very different from the usual reading of Genesis: the Testimony of Truth, for example, tells the story of the Garden of Eden from the viewpoint of the serpent! Here the serpent, long known to appear in Gnostic literature as the principle of divine wisdom, convinces Adam and Eve to partake of knowledge while Elohim threatens them with death, trying jealously to prevent them from attaining knowledge, and expelling them from Paradise when they achieve it. Several of the books in the jar contained up to 8 different texts each. Suffice to say that this Nag Hammadi library treasure, together with codex 13 and along with other duplicate finds from earlier archaeological discoveries provided 30 more or less complete texts and 10 more fragmentary ones; among them being the full Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas to which we shall return later.

Now, near Nag Hammadi, at ancient Pabau, was the monastery and basilica which formed the headquarters of the Pachomian monastic movement. Evidence dates the Nag Hammadi manuscripts between 300 and 350 in the CE and suggests they were prepared in the nearby p.5 of 12 monastery. That means that 1600 years earlier one or more of the monks must have carefully buried them in that large jar in a tomb in the Pachomian cemetery at the foot of the Jabal al-Tarif mountain. We also know that the most likely reason for the need to ensure their preservation in this way was Athanasius’s vigourous suppression activities. He had issued an anti-heretical Paschal (or Easter) letter in the year 367.

The letter had required that all such apocryphal books be destroyed, books which he warned were “filled with myths, empty, and polluted”, myths that would incite conflict and lead people astray. In consequence the Alexandrian Patriarch had instigated a purge of all such heretical books in his diocese. We owe much to the defiant monk or monks, who could little guess the stunning outcome of his action in the 20th century 1600 years later. For indeed, as we know from the absence of other evidence, the widespread destruction of such heresies was most successfully carried out, with this important exception and that of one or two others. It has taken a while since their first discovery 60 years ago in 1945, but these books, in today’s climate of changing religious thought, are experiencing a renaissance, filling a perceived need for alternative views of the Jesus story on the part of New Age seekers and of mainline believers who are uncomfortable with some of their faith’s theological restrictions.

The rising cultural profile of these alternative gospels can be seen in a number of ways:
First, Dan Brown’s novel: The Da Vinci Code (the subject of a February documentary on TV3 that some may remember seeing.) A key plot point in Brown’s best-selling novel with over 4 million copies in print, is that the Roman Catholic Church suppressed 80 alternative Gospels, several describing a physical relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Far from being a prostitute as she is vilified in the orthodox Biblical gospels she is portrayed as a leading disciple and parent (with Jesus) of a line of descendants down to the present day. The book also harks back to an alternative goddess culture as opposed to the male God of the accepted biblical writings. You may also recall from the TV documentary Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper coding the disciple leaning closest to Jesus on closer examination to be clearly that of a woman – of Mary Magdalene in fact.
2nd indicator, Feminist biblical scholars like Harvard University’s Karen King use some of these revived texts to argue (paralleling Dan Brown’s novel,) that far from being a wanton prostitute, Magdalene was seen by some of the gospels as a leading disciple whose standing rivalled that of the Apostle Peter. (Refer back to the Gospel of Philip cited earlier.)
A third indicator is The Matrix Trilogy of movies (which I haven’t seen) whose premise is that the world we know is neither good nor real but the creation of malign power. This echoes early texts now known as Gnostic.
A 4th indicator, cited by van Bieman in Time, is that more and more people in the US are turning to these ancient Christian texts to develop their own religious rituals.

Marcus Borg, author of The Heart of Christianity puts the changing religious culture thus: “There’s a lot of interest in early Christian diversity because many people who have left the church – and some who are still in it – are looking for another way of being Christian.”

Haltingly, then with increasing enthusiasm, cultural interpreters have explored the possible implication of this reversal of orthodox teaching. Van Biema’s Time article says: Examining the Nag Hammadi trove, Elaine Pagels, (Professor of Religion at Princeton University) in her book “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas”, has identified a bouquet of elements attractive to the modern spiritual seeker – echoes of Buddhism and Freud and a lively appreciation of women’s spiritual role. She (has) found a Christianity less keyed to make-or-break beliefs like the virgin birth or Christ’s divinity and more accepting of salvation through ongoing spiritual experience. Some of the texts, she has written, deserve to be considered “not as ‘madness and blasphemy,’ as Athanasius claimed, but as Christians in the first centuries experienced them – a powerful alternative to the orthodox Christian tradition.”

Understand, of course, that the recovered manuscripts don’t speak unanimously. Bart Ehrman in his book Lost Christianities, … notes that some of the early Christians believed in one God, some in two, and others in 30. “There were some,” he says, “who believed Jesus’ death brought about the world’s salvation, and others who thought his death had nothing to do with it. Others said Jesus never died.” But all the lost Christianities shared one conviction: that Jesus’ relatively recent presence, activity and fate on this earth were of transcendent importance.

The gospels grappled with essential questions of sin, death and Jesus’ nature. Some of their answers are interesting now mostly for their oddity (one text tells the Garden of Eden story from the serpent’s viewpoint; (as already mentioned) another speaks in the voice of a female divinity). (One gospel records extraordinarily: “The Cross talked. And Walked. Jesus had died the day before, uttering his last words: “My power, O power, you have left me behind!’ His body was taken down and placed in the tomb. But now, as the Sabbath dawned, a great voice came from the sky, and two men descended. The stone blocking the tomb rolled away of its own accord, and while Roman soldiers gaped, ‘three men emerged from the tomb, two of them supporting the other, with a Cross following behind. The heads of the two reached up to the sky, but the head of the one they were leading went up above the skies. And they heard a voice, ‘Have you preached to those who are sleeping?’ And a reply came from the Cross, ‘Yes’. Bart Ehrman comments: It is a surreal Resurrection: the all-important Christian instant, but garbled, like a favourite song issuing from the bottom of a deep well.

Others of the gospels illustrate stages, eventually left behind, in the development of the Christianity we know today. And still others are compelling enough to stir both conservative fears and liberal hopes. The earliest of the now banned faiths might be described as Christianity still climbing out of its Jewish shell. Jesus was a Jew, and groups like the Ebionites insisted a person had to be Jewish to be his follower. They made use of ritual bathing and prayed facing Jerusalem. … The Ebionites’ Jesus was ..a man whose original distinction was that he kept the entire Jewish law … to perfection and that God recognised this extraordinary righteousness by adopting him as his son and assigning him a special mission: to sacrifice himself in atonement for human sin. The Ebionites’ canon of books comprised the Old Testament and most of the gospel of Matthew, (the most Jewish of the gospels). They had a particular dislike for Paul who claimed that belief in Christ made the entirety of Jewish law irrelevant for salvation. The Ebionites also excluded the gospel of John which makes high claims for Jesus’ divinity. To that we shall turn in more detail soon.

The mirror opposite of the Ebionites, the Marcionites, made a point of eliminating even the smallest speck of Judaism in their Christianity. Marcion decided that the world and its complaints had been created by a bad God, a harsh Jewish deity who imposed a death sentence on humanity when it could not meet his law’s impossibly high standards. The “God of Jesus” meanwhile, was a loving deity who appeared one day from heaven and sacrificed himself to free humanity from his vengeful predecessor. This view of a God of love and acceptance won a large following in its day.

Concerning Gnosticism Bart Ehrman summarises it’s teachings as follows: The world is miserable, a cesspool of ignorance and suffering … and it’s not even really our world. We come from somewhere else, (remember the Matrix movies?) and salvation is finding our way back.” The world and our bodies were created by an incompetent lesser God, but we do contain a spark of divinity, and Jesus provided us with the knowledge to free it. However Gnosticism was elitist. Most Gnostics felt that only a fraction of humans were capable of understanding and appropriating their kind of salvation.

One of the most intriguing manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi is the Gospel of Thomas. Note: I’m sure that this gospel cannot be the other Gospel of Thomas quoted by Hippolytus and used by the Naassenes and extant in Greek, Latin, Slavonic and Syriac versions. That gospel, apparently an abbreviated and expurgated version of an original work, is an account of the childhood of Jesus and consists largely of stories of his miraculous power and knowledge, the most interesting being the account of Jesus’ visit to school, and the well-known story of his causing twelve sparrows of clay to fly. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church article on it describes its collection of stories of the boyhood of Christ as presenting a very unedifying picture of a conceited, and frequently even malicious child who uses his miraculous powers for the satisfaction of his whims.

However the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas consists instead of 114 sayings, (there is no narrative in it at all). Most of its sayings are attributed to Jesus. Some are nearly identical to verses from Matthew, Mark and Luke. But others take a twist. (I’ll be quoting this again in connection with Pagel’s Beyond Belief book, but it bears repeating)… Saying 2 in The Gospel of Thomas begins, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds” but continues “When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over all.” Several other verses extol knowledge, frequently self-knowledge, in terms that would not be out of place in a therapist’s office. Saying 70 reads. “That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves.” Elaine Pagels writes, “Thomas encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus, as to try to know God through one’s own, divinely given capacity.”

Now to go into this in more detail. Pagels in her book contrasts the gospels of Thomas and John at length. I am going to just quote verbatim from her as I summarise her work through the book. Pagel’s argument goes a long way to highlighting the extent to which the orthodox belief in the divinity of Jesus owes to John’s gospel.

Whoever wrote the Gospel of John was distressed about and responding to the kind of teaching you find in the Gospel of Thomas which was widespread at the time. In the Gospel of John we see the way in which the teaching that Jesus is God becomes the dominant theme of orthodoxy. It comes into the Christian tradition very early in a hymn that Paul quotes in the year 50. (You’ll remember it from Philippians ch. 2: The descent of the divine which ends: “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” At the time the idea that Jesus was God was only one of a variety of perceptions, but it became the central theme of orthodoxy.

The writer of John’s gospel probably knew what the Gospel of Thomas taught – if not its actual text. … in fact, what first impressed scholars who compared these two gospels is how similar they are. … Yet despite these similarities, the authors of John and Thomas take Jesus’ … teaching in sharply different directions. For John’s gospel, what makes Jesus unique is identifying Jesus with the light that came into being “in the beginning” … but certain passages in Thomas’s gospel draw a quite different conclusion: that the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by (all) humanity (as well) , since we are all made “in the image of God”. … John’s gospel, by claiming that Jesus alone embodies the divine light, challenges Thomas’s claim that this light may be present in everyone. John’s views of Jesus (of course) prevailed… – with the help of Athanasius in squashing Thomas’s gospel.

Mark followed by Matthew & Luke records Peter going only so far as to say of Jesus: You are the messiah … the anointed one… Israel’s future king – but still only human. Yet the gospel of John, written about a decade after Luke, opens with a poem which suggests that Jesus is not human at all but the divine, eternal Word of God in human form . … historians point out that such views (as John’s and Paul’s) (of Jesus’ divinity) developed from the first century on and culminated in phrases like those enshrined in the Nicene Creed, which go so far as to proclaim Jesus to be “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” … Thomas’s gospel, written perhaps around the same time as John’s, takes language similar to John’s (e.g. light) to mean something quite different … we all may possess that light.

According to Thomas, when Jesus asks, “Who am I?” he receives not one but three responses from various disciples. Peter first gives… righteous messenger … that might interpret messiah for the Greek-speaking audience whom Thomas addresses. The disciple Matthew answers next “You are like a wise philosopher – a phrase perhaps intended to convey the Hebrew term rabbi (“teacher”) in language any Gentile could understand. … But when a third disciple, Thomas himself, answers Jesus’ question, his response confounds the other two: “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.” Jesus replies, “I am not your master, because you have drunk, and have become drunk from the same stream which I measured out.” … Then he takes Thomas aside and reveals to him alone three sayings so secret that they cannot be written down.

On the present or future nature of the kingdom of God:
According to the synoptic gospels, the gospel, the good news of the Kingdom of God is something future. According to both the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John … the kingdom of God is not only “coming” but is already here. … Thomas: “The kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it” (although Luke does record Jesus as saying: the kingdom of God is within you, [whatever that may mean] in one passage.)

On Thomas’s way to God.
Thomas’s gospel offers only cryptic clues – not answers – to those who seek the way to God. Thomas’s “living Jesus” challenges his hearers to find the way for themselves: “Jesus said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these words will not taste death,’ and he warns the disciples that the search will disturb and astonish them: “Jesus said, ‘Let the one who seeks not stop seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled; when he becomes troubled, he will be astonished and will rule over all things.” Thus here again Jesus encourages those who seek, by telling them that they already have the internal resources they need to find what they are looking for: “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you did not bring forth will destroy you.’”

On finding the light rather than following Jesus
According to Thomas, Jesus rebukes those who seek access to God by trying to “follow Jesus” himself. … (he) redirects the disciples away from themselves toward the light hidden within each person: There is light within a person of light, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness.” In other words, one either discovers the light within that illuminates “the whole universe” or lives in darkness, within and without.

Origen (c. 240 CE) commenting in John’s gospel makes a point of saying that while the other (3 gospels) describe Jesus as human, “none of them clearly spoke of his divinity, as John does. (“Son of God” & “messiah” were human roles.)

Various Xn groups validated their teaching (e.g. those of John, of Mark, of Thomas) by declaring allegiance to a specific apostle or disciple and claiming him ( & sometimes her, for some claim Mary Magdalene as a disciple) as their spiritual founder. How then could hearers decide what to believe?

As early as 50 to 60 C.E., Paul had complained that members of different groups would say, for example, “I am from Paul,” or “I am from Apollo,” because those who wrote stories about various apostles – including John, as well as Peter, Matthew, Thomas, and Mary Magdalene – would often promote their groups’ teachings by claiming that Jesus favoured their patron apostle. Conversely, John’s gospel denigrates Thomas as the the questioner, the pessimist, the doubter.

John’s different Jesus.
John emphatically says no to anyone who claims, as Thomas does, that we are (or may become) like Jesus, : Jesus is unique or, as John loves to call him monoghenes – “only begotten” or “one of a kind” – for he insists that God has only one son, and he is different from you and me. … What John’s gospel claims – and has succeeded ever after in persuading the majority of Christians to accept – is that only by believing in Jesus can we find divine truth.

Now we can see how John’s message contrasts with that of Thomas. Thomas’s Jesus directs each disciple to discover the light within (“within a person of light there is light”); but John’s Jesus declares instead that “I am the light of the world” and that “whoever does not come to me walks in darkness.”

In Thomas, Jesus reveals to the disciples that “you are from the kingdom, and to it you shall return” and teaches them to say for themselves that “we come from the light”; but John’s Jesus speaks as the only one who comes “from above” and so has rightful priority over everyone else: “You are from below; I am from above … The one who comes from above is above all.” Only Jesus is from God, and he alone offers access to God. John never tires of repeating that one must believe in Jesus, follow Jesus, obey Jesus, and confess him alone as God’s only son. … we must follow him, believe in him, and revere him as God in person: thus John’s Jesus declares that ”you will die in your sins, unless you believe that I am he.”


… the discovery of Thomas’s gospel shows us that other early Christians held quite different understandings of “the gospel.” For what John rejects as religiously inadequate – the conviction that the divine dwells as “light” within all beings – is much like the hidden “good news” that Thomas’s gospel proclaims. So it appears that what Christians have disparagingly called gnostic and heretical sometimes turn out to be forms of Christian teaching that are merely unfamiliar to us – unfamiliar precisely because of the active and successful opposition of other Christians such as John, which lead subsequently to Athanasius making sure of this by succeeding – almost – in having all but orthodox’s four biblical gospels destroyed.

Pagels in a conversation with one Elizabeth Coleman in 2002 says that the Gospel of Thomas helps us to understand how it is that those of us who are raised Christian can find this tradition engaging and also limiting. There’s a sense of ah-ha; I understand now why I have a mixed reaction. At a meeting she attended on the future of Religion in Sweden the question was: Will there be an openness to a great range of religions and diversity or is it going to be fundamentalism? Her sense was that it would be both. Both are responses to a tremendous increase of communications inter-culturally. A mingling of cultures was going on and some people were embracing that and some were resisting it. Perhaps more people would move towards pluralism because many of those who identify with the Christian tradition were uncomfortable with the (Johannine) claim that it was the only religion. Many have quit because they were intellectually turned off, because they were told they had to believe in something they didn’t believe. She thought that belief is way overvalued in Christianity. Christianity became defined as a set of beliefs or propositions that were completely unproveable, instead of explorations of the spiritual and articulations of certain kinds of intuition and hope and life and ethical sensibility.

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